Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter criticized the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan at an event hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics Wednesday.
The event — which was moderated by HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf — took place just over a month after President Joe Biden called back remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan, bringing America’s longest war to an end. Amid the withdrawal, the Taliban overwhelmed Afghan security forces to return to power.
Carter said Wednesday that Biden withdrew American troops too early, recalling his position on the U.S.’s presence in Afghanistan during his tenure as Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration.
“When I left office, I knew as Secretary of Defense how unpopular this war was,” Carter said. “I was in a minority in my own country in believing that the right course was to stay there, and, as I said, to keep the lid on and maintain a semi-permanent presence in Afghanistan. I was the only one that believed that.”
The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Carter argued, both prevented terrorist attacks and provided a strategic outpost in the Middle East. For example, Carter said that the U.S. would not have been able to kill Osama Bin Laden at Abbottabad, Pakistan without having a strong presence in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
Carter — who currently heads HKS’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs — also explained how the U.S. presence in Afghanistan evolved over two decades. When America first invaded Afghanistan, the war was deadly, he explained.
“This isn’t some Washington game sitting around the situation room table making decisions.” Carter said. “That is part of it, but it’s a deadly serious business.”
By 2015, though, American forces had transitioned to a largely supportive role and were not participating in hazardous combat missions.
“In the last few years, there were not Americans routinely dying weekly in Afghanistan,” Carter said.
During the question-and-answer portion of the event, an audience member asked Carter what America could do to help the Afghan people under the Taliban’s rule.
“It’s a very good question, and I’m sorry, there isn’t a lot,” Carter said. “It’s all going to depend upon the forbearance of the Taliban and what they’re going to permit.”
Due to distrust of the Taliban, countries likely will be reluctant to provide humanitarian aid to Afghanis, he said.
“The willingness of the world to look beyond the government of the Taliban to a stricken people and continue to give aid — that’s not going to happen,” he said.